Jeff Ford, co-author with Elizabeth Phillips Shaw of the newly released The Lone Wolverine, was kind enough to answer a few questions, over email, about his book and his work. The book details Jeff’s quest to document a wolverine who showed up in Michigan in 2004; he photographed and videoed her faithfully for six years before her death in early 2010. During this time, he also worked full-time as a high school science teacher, and became an advocate for wolverines among his students and the wider outdoor community. Here are some of Jeff’s perspectives on becoming Michigan’s primary spokesman for wolverines.
RW: In your science classes, how did students respond to your interest in the wolverine and to its inclusion in lessons? I guess I’m wondering how it fit into the curriculum, and if any of the students caught the “gulo bug.”
JF: The response from my science classes on my “Gulo” lessons were incredibly positive. I think the positive response I had was a combination of the passion they sensed as I presented my videos, pics, and facts, and the fact that the wolverine was living 20 minutes from the very classroom that I was presenting the lesson. Certainly, the wolverine living right where they all lived contributed to their interest with this real life wildlife detective story. And as I traveled and presented at other schools students were completely “into it”.
One of the Michigan Junior High Benchmarks stated “Students will have a better understanding and appreciation for the natural world,” which opened the door for my gulo incorporated lessons. Also, there was a benchmark relating to inaccurate information that exists on the web, and this also opened the door for me to implement a lesson where students are awarded for researching the internet and compiling a list of wolverine facts, then further researching in scientific studies, books, etc. to confirm or refute that particular fact.
There is actually one inaccurate (or should I say unproven) fact in my book that somehow mysteriously “slipped in”. Did you catch that?
RW: I didn’t. I’ll have to go back and read it again – If any blog readers catch it, let me know.
I was struck by the lengths that you went to to gather information on this one wolverine. Without your efforts, no one would have known anything other than the fact that there was a (gender and origin undetermined) wolverine sighted in Michigan in 2004. One of the things we struggle with as professional scientists is figuring out an effective way to partner with citizen scientists. Do you think that citizen scientists have a role to play in helping us learn more about wolverines across their range, and if so, what are your recommendations for both citizen and professional scientists as we work together?
JF: That’s a very interesting question and yes, I do believe the professional scientists could effectively utilize citizens to help with Gulo research, and it is technology that has allowed this to happen. With the invention and improvement of game trail cameras utilizing “heat in motion” technology and digital capabilities, it is now possible for an “average Joe” like me to become an effective monitor of his/her area for wolverine activity given the motivation and time. I believe professionals could recruit college students, outdoorsman, etc to monitor their particular area if they are provided with the proper procedures and equipment to do so. This would also benefit the college student who is trying to log “in the field” hours for classes or simply to boost their resume status. From my perspective, I would like to see citizens recruited all across the northern tier of the Upper Peninsula from the far west to the far east. By placing game cameras over bait in January-March when wolverines are nutritionally stressed and the ice bridges are available for dispersal, it would be possible to monitor ongoing dispersal rates from Ontario into Michigan, or to establish that this type of progression simply isn’t occurring.
RW: Now that your pretty girl is gone, what do you see as your role in on-going wolverine education, research, and conservation?
JF: Over the years working with [wolverine researcher] Audrey [Magoun] and [the Wolverine Foundation’s] Judy [Long] I slowly made the conscious shift from just being the protector of this one lone wolverine to the conservation and sustenance of all wolverines throughout North America. I started realizing that the research I was doing may help get the gulo word out and help people to appreciate these fascinating mammals. Now that the book is completed, as I tour the state with “the pretty girl”, I feel obligated to try to pique as many people’s interest in wolverine’s as I can, with the thought in mind of what Judy Long said “Interest in this lone wolverine equates to interest in the wolverine species in general and equates to money for research-regardless of how she arrived in Michigan”. My sister and I have pieced together a very nice power point of my best 100 pictures and video footage, and I am going to take advantage of this opportunity on my road trip to develop some more people into “Gulo lovers”.
RW: And of course, the big question….what is it about these animals that catches people and hooks them so thoroughly? Everyone who gets involved at all ends up really involved. The Blackfeet even have a legend about how, if you encounter a wolverine in the wild, you will never be the same again, never be able to peacefully return to the life you were living before. The species seems to generate a peculiar sort of obsession. Why? And why with certain people?
JF: I certainly think the Blackfeet were on to something, because my obsession with “the pretty girl” was strong, deep, and lasting and I will never forget her, never get over her death, and always feel a strong connection to her…I remember vividly the first time I followed her tracks in the mud in 2004 down a deer run deep in the swamp, and the goose bumps I had on my neck and arms, and the incredible feeling of elation I felt as I followed along behind this animal. This was well before my 1st picture and video so the deep rooted passion for this animal was already evident very early on. I can’t completely explain it- it seemed as though a mystic force had taken over my body and was driving me to study this animal regardless of the obstacles or challenges that lie before me.
I do know the rarity of these animals contributed, her beauty and grace as she seemed to glide through terrain a man or woman would have to navigate on all 4’s grunting and struggling, her strength, athletic ability, agility, perseverance, determination, “never say die” attitude when trying to remove my ratchet strapped carcass, her keen awareness of her environment as she moved throughout the research site, and her intelligence and problem solving skills when presented with a challenge, their legendary reputation as being fearless even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, their beautiful, powerful front legs, large pads and claws, huge bushy tail that was so beautiful in just the right sunlight, her incredible endurance the day of “the chase” [when she was first spotted by coyote hunters in 2004] covering 30-40 miles in mere hours, her ability to remain unseen in a human populated area (she could never be more than 2 miles from a human at any given time), a wolverine’s refusal to harm humans. My god, there are so many reasons I love this species and in particular especially this beautiful female, the pretty girl. I miss following her, I miss the excitement of getting new video and pictures of her, I miss walking through these woods knowing she was alive and well, and utilizing the same habitat that I was as I pursued the whitetail deer with bow in hand, I miss everything about her!!!!!
More information on Jeff Ford’s work can be found at his website.